Recipe for a Non-Writing Retreat

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If you find yourself hitting the wall with a writing project, you can’t figure out what comes next in a scene or chapter, or you’re just too dang close to a project to know whether it’s any good or not, try this recipe for a non-writing retreat.

Ingredients

  • Fresh figs
  • Dark chocolate
  • Art supplies
  • Good climbing shoes
  • One large tree

Choose a serene spot with at least one large, accessible tree. I find the most effective is a location with very few, if any, other humans.

Place your brain to the side. (You will need this later when the retreat is over.) Put on your climbing shoes (I like Five-Finger shoes because they give you sticky-monkey-feet, but sneakers are good too. Bare feet work in a pinch).

If there is more than one tree in your chosen location, select the tree that calls to you the most. One way to discern which tree is calling is to approach each tree one by one and place your palms flat against the trunk. When you become aware of your heart, you know you’ve found your tree. Sometimes I feel a strengthened connection between my palms and my heart. All of this may be subtle, so take your time and listen with your whole body.

Once you’ve chosen your tree, proceed to climb it. You don’t have to be a daredevil climber to reap the benefits of tree climbing.  Even sitting on a low branch with your feet swinging a foot above the forest floor will provide you with the core benefit of your non-writing retreat.

For the most effective tree-sitting experience, find a limb or large branch that you can align with your sternum. Gently press your sternum against the branch or limb. One of my favorite ways to do this is to lie belly down along a large horizontal or near-horizontal limb. Alternately, you can align the limb or branch with the “back door to your heart” (this is the spot between your shoulder blades roughly opposite your sternum, or your heart). The gentle pressure vertically along your sternum or between your shoulder blades will allow the grounding energy of the tree to flow into your body, resetting your nervous system. (Note: The author has done no research to back up this statement. Neither is it FDA approved.)

Once you’re in a comfortable position, turn flame to low and simmer. Allow your gaze to settle on various aspects of the natural habitat you now find yourself in. Let your gaze soften and focus inward. Do you feel your energy shifting? What other senses are you aware of? What is the temperature of the air on your skin? Is there a breeze? Do you notice any sounds, textures, or smells? (If you smell tuna casserole, you haven’t gone far enough out into nature.)

As you sit or lie in the tree, you will likely feel your body relax (unless you’re afraid of heights). You may even become drowsy. In this subdued state you may notice creative ideas begin to bubble. Note: If you haven’t been out of the city for a while or you’ve been working particularly long hours, you may need to allow for a preliminary period of thought-slowing before your body begins to relax.

You’ll know you’re done with the tree-lounging portion of your retreat when you’ve got so many creative ideas bubbling up that you can’t sit still any longer or, alternately, when the ants that were streaming along the tree trunk are now streaming through your pants.

Climb down.

I like to thank the tree for the nurturing energy by placing my palms once again flat against the trunk. (If any of this sounds like nonsense to you, by all means skip the nonsensical parts! No reason to do empty rituals. But if you’re open to it, I invite you to suspend disbelief for a moment and at least try it out for yourself. If you’ve followed the recipe so far, there’s no one around to see you do it.) Another powerful touch point is the lips. Gently touch your lips to the bark of the tree and feel the energetic connection to your heart. (There’s a reason kissing is done with the lips!)

Now you can start on the art project you’ve brought along. If you haven’t brought along an art project, take a walk around your selected location and find some natural elements that speak to you—twigs, stones, grasses, whatever appeals to your senses. Now arrange them on the ground or in a tree or bush in a manner that’s pleasing to you.

And don’t forget about the fresh figs and dark chocolate (or whatever sensual foods you prefer). When you eat them, try closing your eyes and really pay attention to the smell and taste of the foods.

Note: Although the point of this retreat is to take a break from writing . . . it may very well trigger some writing ideas. So you might want to bring along a notebook and pen, just in case.

Oh, and don’t forget to gather up your brain before you drive home.Image

My Theory about Fast Readers

I am a slow reader. Yes, it’s true. (I like to think it’s because I’m reading deeply . . . but I also have a theory, so read on.)

I took a speed-reading class in college to try and help myself get through the enormous reading load at U.C. Santa Cruz. All that class taught me was how to be tense . . . while I read slowly.

Most people who know me probably think I was one of those kids who holed up and read in my room for hours on end. But I wasn’t. As soon as I got home from school, I changed into my play clothes and ran outside to practice cartwheels on the front lawn or find a tree to climb. I didn’t become an avid reader until I was about 12. And even then, I spent just as much time building things and playing and exploring outdoors.

So, here’s my theory on how people become fast readers (based on a very limited sampling of people): Those who read fast as adults were, as children, the type of people who devoured books for hours on end . . . before the age of 12.

Please help me test out my theory by answering these questions in a comment:

1) Are you a fast reader or a slow reader?

2) Did you hole up and read for hours on end before the age of 12?

I know you all are stopping by and reading my blog . . . Please don’t be shy. Share your thoughts!

Related post: Learning to Read.

A Writers’ Poll: How much do you write a day?

When I was growing up, sitting under my mom’s desk to play, comforted by the resounding tap, tap, tap of her manual typewriter, and then later shut out of her writing den so she could concentrate, I thought it was normal for a writer to write for hours and hours on end. My mom woke up and got to work by 5 or 6 in the morning and she didn’t leave her typewriter, and then later her computer, until 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

That’s eight hours of writing!

When I began to write (after years of resisting being a writer, since I figured one was enough for one family), I found that my normal rhythm was about three or four hours a day. And when I tried to write more, I was utterly exhausted after five hours. What’s up with that? Although I didn’t fall far from the tree, I did seem to be a completely different kind of apple.

We were in many ways two very different writers. My mom wrote stage plays and television screenplays; I write fiction and memoir. My mom’s work was plot and dialogue driven. My work is very visual (though I do write good dialogue too; thanks, Mom). My mom wrote from the outside in—getting the concept and perhaps the structure in place first, and often not getting to the emotional content until later drafts. I tend to write from the inside out, spilling my guts onto the page and then muddling my way to finding some sort of plot.

Is our difference in style what made it harder for me to write longer than 3 or 4 hours? Or was it just that my mom was a bit of a powerhouse-superwoman-wordsmith? I mean, the woman only needed to 3 to 5 hours of sleep.

Well, when I recently began writing a book on a deadline, I found that suddenly I was writing five, six, seven hours a day! One day, I even wrote for eight. And I didn’t even feel exhausted . . . well, maybe a little. But I also felt exhilarated.

The mighty deadline has pushed me through the glass ceiling. Perhaps that was the difference all along. My mom wrote on deadline for years. Or . . . maybe my mom’s lovely spirit has been hanging around helping me out.

In any case, with that triumph in my back pocket, I still cherish the lovely writer’s day that goes like this: write in the morning; nap and then exercise in the afternoon; socialize in the evening. Perhaps one day I’ll get to write that way again.

In the end, there is no right number of hours for everyone. Virginia Woolf, I have heard, wrote for one hour a day. Stephen King supposedly writes ten pages each and every day (a lot of writing! Anyone know how long that takes him?). Many, many writers claim the 3–5 hour a day rule.

How much do you write a day? Do you shoot for hours or word count? Please tell us how you write n’ roll.

Go on a Writing Retreat to Kick Your Writing into High Gear

Late July 2012: Nomi heads for the hills to write (near Mariposa, California).
Can you spot my writing companion? (Thank you, Barbara, for hosting my retreat!)

Are piles of paperwork, screaming kids, and day-to-day responsibilities keeping you from your writing? One thing that has always helped me get back on track with a project is to get out of town.

Before I wrote on the computer, I loved going camping to write. (Yes, I used to write my first draft longhand!) One time, when I was having difficulty with a particular chapter, I went to Palomar Mountain (San Diego County). I set up my tent and made myself a promise that I wouldn’t leave the mountain until I had finished the chapter. I didn’t care how long it took. I ended up staying a full week but I headed down the mountain with a finished chapter tucked under my arm.

If cost is a concern (and you’re not the camping type), think about whether you have a friend in the boonies with a guest cottage or perhaps you know someone who needs a house sitter. Another possibility is a retreat center; some spiritual retreat centers are quite affordable.

It’s important that you go somewhere where there’s not a lot of cultural diversion (i.e., New York City is probably not the most conducive to a focused retreat). If there’s a choice of a room with no T.V., go for it and dive into your written world.

If you’ve done a writing retreat, please comment and tell us about it!

Distracted? Write in Bed.

“First I have to feed the cat,” I said when my mentor told me to write first thing when I got up in the morning.

“OK, so feed the cat. Then write,” she told me.

“But once I go downstairs to feed the cat, I get distracted.” (There were a myriad diversions downstairs—email, roommate, watering the garden, scrubbing the grout in the kitchen tiles.) This was a few years back and I was following a program of writing 30 minutes a day . . . period. (See my post “The Timer Is Your Friend.”)

The next thing my mentor said delighted me as much as it surprised me.

“Write in bed,” she said.

I loved getting advice from another writer. No one but a writer could come up with something so entirely decadent. Truth is, it was equal parts decadent and logical. You’re distracted once you get up + you have a laptop = write in bed. Of course!

So, for the next few months when I went upstairs at bedtime I took with me my laptop and a snack for the next morning to tide me over till breakfast. (My darling cat, Treepuck, would have to wait 30 minutes for his breakfast, till I finished my writing.)

When I woke each morning, I would reach for my laptop without setting foot on the floor. I did this daily and made my way through a couple of chapters tucked cozily beneath my comforter.

Unexpectedly, over the ensuing months I eased my way from the bed to the floor and eventually down the stairs to my living room office, all without ever being distracted.

So if you find yourself distracted in the morning . . . take your writing to bed.

An Editor Tries to Text

“Send me a text.”

Those words send a shudder through my body. Not because I think texting creates two-dimensional human beings (though I am concerned about the next generation’s ability to connect face to face) and not because the posture assumed by a texter is harrowing for the neck (again, I worry about the cervical vertebrae of today’s young people), but because I’m an editor.

I know some people find texting to be a convenient and, as needed, surreptitious shortcut to communication. But when I text—and I try to make it a very rare event, indeed—there is nothing convenient, surreptitious, nor shortcut-ish about it.  I’m simply incapable of the very conventions that make texting speedy. I cannot, for the life of me, forgo capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. Nor am I able to leave out a called-for comma. And periods? Forget it. I will not write a sentence that has no period at the end. How will anyone ever know I’ve ended my thought?

To make matters worse, I don’t have a smart phone. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, and it did have a period at the end. It’s true; I do not have a smart phone. I have a dumb phone. And I like my dumb phone (which used to be considered very smart, running on satellite towers and all). Thus I do not have a smart keyboard on my phone. I have a dumb keyboard (which used to be considered quite clever, one key pad being able to handle both numbers and letters; brilliant!). But texting on this dumb key pad . . . Not fun. Some of you may not even remember how that’s done, all you smart phone owners. You press the 4 three times to get an “I,” the 7 four times to get an “s,” the 3 two times to get an “e” . . . You get the picture. An editor standing head lowered (neck bent in an achingly awkward position) for a full fifteen minutes right in the middle of a busy supermarket, inserting all the periods from “special mode,” to let my friend know I’m running late.

A phone call would have been faster. (I don’t mind dropping capital letters when I speak.)

[See my follow-up post, “An Editor Gets a Smart Phone“]

Weathering Rejection

 

The first time I had a piece of writing rejected (which was the first time I sent a piece of writing out), I called the first writer I had ever met (my mom, Hindi Brooks) to deliver the bad news.

“I got my first rejection,” I said. “They’re not going to publish my story.”

“Congratulations,” my mom said to me. “Now you’re a real writer!”

A ray of sun broke through the dark cloud hanging over my head, and I stood a little taller.

I tucked that one into my belt and sent out another story.

Thanks, Mom. You helped me weather the storm of rejection that every writer must walk through on their way to getting published.

The Awe of the Writing Teacher

 

I just returned home from teaching a class (Writing from the Senses: Quieting the Inner Critic). A first night of a new series. And again I find myself in awe. A roomful of (mostly) new people—new to me, new to each other—and everyone dove in with such honesty and vulnerability . . . and so much wisdom.

Every time I teach I lay before my students an invitation. Come ride this wave with me! Dive in and see what you find! And each and every time I am honored, and astounded, to have my invitation accepted. Wow, they’re really gonna do this! They’re going to dive into the depths and return to the surface with such treasures.

I am so blessed to get to witness this process. And so grateful to those willing to engage in it.

Union Maid: The Spirit of Hindi Brooks

 

When I was a child my mother, Hindi Brooks Kleinmuntz, used to get up and sing “Union Maid” at parties. Her lifelong friend Esther (“Essie”) Broner sometimes accompanied her, and the two would belt out this pro-labor folk song luminous-faced and full of spunk. . . . I was only a little embarrassed.

Years later, my mom wrote a musical about a woman union organizer set in the early 1900s. The finale of the show was, of course, “Union Maid.”

In early December 2011, as my mother lay in a hospital bed, robbed of speech by a massive stroke, I realized I should be singing to her. (The doctors had told us she probably understood only 30 – 40% of what we said to her. Yet the part of the brain responsible for music was on the opposite, unaffected side.) But what to sing? I’d spent much of my life phobic about singing in public, and although I’ve now largely shed this phobia, it had hindered my learning of lyrics. (If you don’t sing songs, you don’t learn the words!)

It didn’t take long for the answer to come. Union Maid, of course! I would sing Union Maid. But I only knew the first line: “There once was a union maid, she never was afraid.” It was a good start. I knew my mom was terrified; I could see it in her face. This song was perfect; it was about a fearless woman. I sang this line to her a couple of times, and with her good hand she kept time to the music. Halleluiah! The song touched just the spot in her spirit that needed touching.

About an hour later, my mother pointed to my mouth. “What?” I said. Not a good question to ask someone who’s just been robbed of speech. But she found my hand and tapped rhythmically into my palm. “The song?” I said. “You want me to sing again?” She nodded.

This was the time for action and the internet. But I had no access at the hospital. One call to my resourceful friend Craig, and we were on our way. (Craig found and faxed the full lyrics to the nurses’ station, identified the writer as Woody Guthrie, and played an internet recording into my voice mail so I’d have the melody right.) Now each time my mom indicated that she wanted to hear the song, I was able to sing the full song to her . . . twice. She always wanted to hear it twice.

Nine days later, my beautiful Union Maid mom passed away (to join the great Union). But I wasn’t done singing. I knew I needed to sing the song one more time . . . at her funeral. “Union Maid” had helped my mom because it embodies the essence of who she is (I’m claiming my right to present tense for a while longer). She recognized the fearless union maid as a reflection of who she, Hindi, is in her core. That was the place it touched in her spirit.

Perhaps some of you will see yourself (your core self) reflected in this song. (Oh, and by the way, everyone at the memorial service sang along with me!)

Union Maid
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come ’round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

(To read full song lyrics click here.)

The Unplugged Writer: Take a Writing Retreat Day

When life was simpler—before smart phones and Facebook—writers retreated easily from the world to pen their works. Virginia Woolf didn’t have to remember to silence her Beyoncé ringtone or do her daily blog post in order to build her platform. She simply retreated, and wrote. (She did, of course, have to procure a room of her own . . . but that’s for another post.)

I’m not saying that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers didn’t need discipline to get themselves to write. Even these early writers could find a tempting distraction. (Think opium and Henry Miller’s frolicking between the sheets.) But today’s writers have all that and more, the biggest distraction being one click away—the Internet.

A number of years ago, wanting to flee the distractions of the modern world, I tried to find a suitable hideaway for a writing retreat. (I’d done this a few times, and my writing output had been phenomenal.) But the reality of my limited finances at the time kept hitting me in the face. I could not find a hotel or retreat center within my price range, and, it being November, it was too cold to go camping (writing while shivering makes for illegible penmanship). So I asked myself: “What is it about going away that makes my writing so productive?” The answer was this: No one knows where I am. (This was pre-cell phone—at least for me—and pre-Internet-connection away from home.) Simply put: When I went away to write, I was unplugged.

So, I thought, what do I have to do to be unplugged at home?

The following day, I set about answering that question. I bought groceries enough to last me through my retreat (so I didn’t have to talk to people at the store or be bothered with the “chore” of shopping). I changed my outgoing message to let people know I was on writing retreat. (I didn’t mention it was a staycation. Let them think I was out of town!) I unplugged my Internet connection and my television. And I decided that my only obligation each day of my retreat was to write for four hours. Nothing else was mandatory. Think of it . . . I had only four hours out of each 24 where I was obligated to do anything. Thus, my writing retreat was not only productive in terms of literary output but it was also restful, and fun. I took long walks, made paintings and collages, stared out the window, essentially did whatever I was moved to do (outside of my four hours of writing). And because my mind was so free of outside distractions, the ideas that were seeded during my writing hours continued to germinate during my nonwriting hours. (I always took a small notepad and pen on my walks and almost always needed to use them.)

My stay-at-home writing retreat was so wonderful and so productive that I adopted a once-weekly writing retreat day, a tradition I followed for about a year. Every Wednesday evening, I changed my outgoing voicemail to say I would return calls on Friday morning. My extreme discipline with unplugging each and every Thursday delivered extreme productivity, and extreme luxury. I craved the benefits of these retreat days so much that the discipline was not at all challenging. In fact, it didn’t even feel like discipline; it felt downright indulgent.

So, why do I no longer have Unplugged Thursdays in my life? I suppose I feel the weight of more responsibility these days—more editing and writing and coaching to do, more emails to answer, more blogging and posting. . . . I just feel unpluggable. But I have a hunch that this “unpluggability” is, on some level, an illusion. I mean, what would really happen if I didn’t answer the phone or go online for one day? Would the world stop because I haven’t logged in?

I do realize that people who have children or jobs where others’ lives are at stake (e.g., ER doctors or psychiatrists) are not necessarily in the position to unplug for a full day, but even they could arrange to unplug for a morning, or for an hour.

So, my invitation to you is to Just Say No to cyberspace . . . just for the day. Tell your Facebook friends that you have very important business to tend to . . . and then shut down your Internet. Commit to a certain amount of time at your computer or notepad, but be sure to have down time surrounding your writing time. (Muses love down time.) Ask your spouse or roommate to support your need to retreat. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t send any texts. Don’t turn on the television. Let the silence envelope you . . . and see what happens. Then please tell us all about it!

I will surely be joining you soon in the land of the Unplugged.